One of the largest civil engineering and construction projects in the world has just begun in Nicaragua. The interoceanic canal, or the Grand Canal, as it has been called, will link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and include a 105 kilometer swath across Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. Among the poorest countries in the Americas, President Daniel Ortega and supporters of the project say it will provide great economic benefit to Nicaragua.
However, critics from around the world, including CEE professor Michael Brett, question the economic viability and worry the canal may cause negative long-term environmental and social impacts. While international best practices call for environmental assessments before work begins, protestors and scientists note the Nicaraguan government and HKND, the Chinese company building the canal, have bypassed this step. Brett and an international group of scientists are insisting that these ecological impact studies be completed and released for public debate.
Workshop in Managua
For Brett, the University of Washington connection to Nicaragua reaches back to Benjamin Linder, a mechanical engineer and UW alumnus, who was assassinated by the Contras while developing hydroelectric systems for rural Nicaraguan communities in the 1980s. When an international workshop to discuss issues associated with the canal was announced in Managua, Nicaragua, the Linder Foundation, established to provide scholarships for Nicaraguan students in Linder’s name, called on the UW to participate. Brett, who was also investigating projects in Nicaragua for the UW chapter of Engineers Without Borders chapter, seized the opportunity to join the workshop.
Twenty international and Nicaraguan scientists attended the workshop, sponsored by the Academy of Sciences of Nicaragua, in November 2014. Led by Jorge Huete-Perez, the panel identified technical and scientific questions regarding the canal project and focused discussion around three general issues: water and sediments, biodiversity, and socioeconomic issues.
Among the many issues and questions raised, the scientists concluded the channel through the lake will severely impact the ecology of the system due to sediment resuspension, leading to decreased oxygen levels and degraded fisheries. While Lake Nicaragua has good water quality now, the canal construction and operation will likely lower the quality and impair its usefulness. Additionally, the canal route, which cuts through nature reserves and tribal homelands, will displace thousands of people who do not have adequate property deeds.
While HKND has commissioned an environmental impact study from British firm Environmental Resources Management, neither organization has released information from the assessment.
“They haven’t disclosed what they’re going to do to protect the interests of the people, how they’re going to protect the nature reserves, how they’re going to protect indigenous rights, whether they’re going to protect the rights of the people who are in the path of [the canal],” said Brett.
After returning from the workshop, Brett initiated an effort to rally the scientific community and speak out against the canal. Brett, along with Alan Covich of the University of Georgia and Katherine Vammen of the Nicaraguan Research Center for Water Resources, drafted a petition to call for the cessation of the project until environmental assessments are completed and publicly debated.
“There’s going to be potentially tremendous environmental impacts, but in a lot of cases, we don’t know what those are, because they haven’t been specified,” said Brett.
So far, the statement has received nearly 230 signatures from scientists spanning 32 countries.
For a project of this magnitude, Brett explains, it is critical that information from an environmental impact statement be disclosed and openly vetted. “Ultimately, what you have to do with an environmental impact statement is ask yourself whether potential impacts outweigh potential benefits. None of that’s been done. There’s a complete lack of transparency.”
“The primary goal would be to get the Chinese government and Nicaraguan government to release the environmental impact report before they get too far along on this project,” said Brett.